Ré Dubhthaigh

Ré Dubhthaigh, founder and director of the design-led management consultancy Radarstation, is one of STBY’s most frequent collaborators. A specialist in helping executives and operatives in organisations understand the changing needs and desires of their customers, Ré’s experience and expertise have proven invaluable on collaborations for clients such as Sony, CBBC, and Southern Water.

Ré’s work often focuses on the area between between strategic decision-making and operational implementation. In the projects he’s worked on with STBY,  Ré’ has focused on designing projects that place the customer at the heart of an organisation, thus influencing its culture, its thinking, its processes and services. This expertise has made him one of STBY’s most valuable associates.

STBY case study on experiencefellow.com

A STBY case study is published on the website of ExperienceFellow. STBY used the mobile ethnography tool ExperienceFellow in order to get a better understanding of the perspectives of Dutch people on health and sustainability in food.

The article shows how diverse private and governmental parties worked together in order to better understand the eating habits and attitudes of Dutch people. The focus of the research was how to best encourage people to eat more sustainable food. Although most people in the Netherlands are aware of the importance of a healthy diet, many have difficulties getting their heads around the relatively new concept of ‘sustainable food’. We decided to go for an auto-ethnography study, because it would allow to cover a longer time span and involve a much higher number of participants. Read the article Mapping the Dutch’s’ perspectives on healthy and sustainable food to learn more about our approach.

Combining digital and physical diary methods

Recently we carried out a study with a mix of three of the most used and recognised qualitative methods: a diary study,  in-depth interviews, and co-creation workshops. The rationale for this blended research method was to use the diary study to warm up participants to the research topic, followed by a two-hour deep dive interview at their home, and culminating in a creative group session where the participants could jointly contribute to future-oriented speculations.

The two-week diary study set the tone of the research project and acted as an introduction to the study for each participant. As the study explored experiences and reflections on personal topics such as sleep, stress and wellbeing, the participants benefitted from a slow lead up that triggered their observations and thoughts. We aimed to keep the diary study conversational in order to encourage and stimulate the reflective thinking process of the participants. Thus when they met us in person for the interview, they had already given some thought to some of the questions raised. As key tools for the diary study, we used both a digital and a psychical diary. Looking back, the use of both of these seemed to be very beneficial for the research project. The digital and physical dairies were complementary to each other, and also to the other research touch points with the participants.   

Capturing places, objects and scenarios

The original plan aimed to use a digital diary tool to capture relevant moments in a participant’s life for two weeks. The diary could be installed as an app on the participants’ smartphones, and they could enter text, images, videos, and locations for each diary entry. We asked the participants to keep this diary with a daily entry of two weeks, mostly for things that were visible to capture. For example: a place, an object, a scenario. The study was focused on exploring day-to-day routines, so specific details to illustrate their recurring journeys were meaningful to capture and share. This also offers a problem for the research team, because what comes back from such a digital diary is often fragmented. We receive disparate slices of everyday life, and it’s up to the participants to frame the relationship between what they have captured and shared.

That is why during the second research week we also used a physical diary accompanied by a few live prompts. The physical diary and the prompts made up for what the digital diary was missing and brought an element of fun to the study. The entries in the physical diary were more reflective, as people often took more time to complete and reflect. For example, imagine jolting down a few thoughts with a pencil in a small booklet before going to sleep. The diary booklet was designed with themes and questions to guide the responses. All were open questions, asking for thoughts and feelings rather than facts. We added prompts that we called ‘Moment Frames’, to put a focus on the most important object or environment in their story. The Moment Frames were paper frames with a title underneath, asking the participant to capture three things from their daily life. The titles were carefully phrased, to help the participant to capture what’s relevant to the core of our research questions.

The physical diary was packed and posted in the first week to arrive at the participant’s home before the start of the second week. The pack included the following items:

– The diary booklet
– The 3 Moment Frames
– A special treat


The physical diary proved to be a great help to prepare both us, the researchers, and the participants for the in-depth interview. Its guiding questions followed a similar outline to our interview discussion guide. It helped to warm up the participants for an in-depth discussion on a topic that not many people discuss openly on daily basis. We scanned the physical diary before going into the interview, so we had a general idea of what angle each participant might take on our questions. We knew what to focus on in the precious two-hour face to face time we shared with the participant.

The digital diary also gave us more than we expected. A few participants sent back really long paragraphs of text and described their experiences in much detail. The fact that they could send us a picture to illustrate their point, made their story much more vivid to us. It also helped us to anticipate things we could capture with video during the interview, or things to probe further on during the home visit. Some of the participants showed a level of reflection on their journey in the diary app that surpassed our expectations.

Two of the participants explicitly expressed an intention to change their routine after the first week of the diary study, and explained in their digital diary why they came to this conclusion. It’s hard to tell whether this reflective writing was influenced by their writings in the physical diary booklet, but there was clearly a willingness to treat the digital diary as a proper diary tool, rather than just uploading isolated fragments and facts. While for the other participants, their entries in the digital diary were shorter and less reflective compared to their physical diary, these digital diaries still recorded many vivid details and supporting images.

To sum up:

A digital diary is great for

– Instant data sync – to enable researchers to monitor and prompt diary entries, and to troubleshoot
Adding image and location data – for better illustration of the diary texts
– Convincing the user to record at the moment – while the memory and feeling of the experience are still fresh
– Capture moments in sequence.

While a physical diary is great for

– Recording more reflective thinking – enabling the participant to stay away from the distraction of their phone
– A change of media – to help and stimulate new thoughts
– Creating a physical presence of the researcher in the diary study period -by triggering appreciation for the craft put into making a physical diary.

If we apply service design thinking to the design of a diary study, the two diary methods are complementary touch points for our participants. Both diaries, digital or physical, serve one aim: to help us with getting to know the participants, understand them as individual human beings, understand their motivations and their behaviours. If we have a chance to do a similar project, we’d definitely use both again and also explore more interactive ways to use prompts like Moment Frames that link the world of the physical and the digital diary together.

Changing the role of plastic in our daily lives

Most people living in today’s society find it hard to go without the use of plastic, or even to reduce their use of plastic. Various media have recently shed a spotlight on how our usage of plastic has resulted in ocean pollution – in the UK most notably through the popular documentary Blue Planet II. Although many of us are genuinely motivated to be more proactive in dealing with our plastic usage and disposal, the actual recycling rate of plastic packaging is still not very high – in the UK currently only 45%. STBY was commissioned to carry out a research that aimed to explore the gap between people’s aspiration and what they actually do in their daily lives, with the aim to identify opportunities for improvement. This project was a collaboration with SAP and Design Thinkers Academy UK.

Auto-ethnography to capture daily experiences with plastic

Although plastic is all around us, our recognition of how we consume and dispose of it happens in small, intermittent moments. Some of us simply dump a plastic yogurt bottle in a general bin on the train, while others rigorously sort out their recycling waste for council collection. To understand the motivations, routines and emotions that drive these behaviours, we set out to study these ‘moments of truth’ in the actual context of people’s busy lives – at home, on the go, in work spaces.

As part of the research methodology we carried out an auto-ethnography study of 12 days, following 24 participants through various moments of their lives. We used the Experience Fellow app, installed on the participants’ mobile phones, to digitally ‘follow’ them during the research period. They were invited to report their encounters with plastic, describe their thoughts and feelings, take pictures to illustrate their experiences, and to score their satisfaction. The app also enabled the research team to prompt participants, based on the incoming reports, which helps to get better insight into each individual’s experiences. The participants were encouraged to use the tool to capture anything they thought to be relevant. Many reported plastic packaging as a major problem they face, and some illustrated how they create their own solutions to avoid using plastic (i.e. use a cotton pouch for dry-cleaning, or re-use plastic boxes for various purposes). A total of 558 experiences were captured across the 24 participants, and were turned into individual data points for analysis.

Workshops and home visits to reflect and delve deeper

The auto-ethnography study spanned a two-week period between the joint ‘Plastic Labs’ at the start and finish of the research. These labs were co-creative workshops with all participants. The first lab helped them to get familiar with the research topic and scope, so they knew what to focus on during the auto-ethnography. The second lab gave the participants a chance to reflect on the wide range of stories that were collected across the whole group. Many people recognised the frustrations that were raised. These became joint focus points for deeper conversations in the workshop.

Following up on the auto-ethnography and the workshops we agreed with 4 participants to visit them at home and delve even a bit deeper in their individual experiences and context. These home visits produced not only a better understanding, but also a rich collection of video material to be edited into visual stories communicating key recurring issues with the use of plastic in people’s everyday lives.

Inspiring professional stakeholders to come up with new solutions

From the analysis of over 800 data points collected through the Plastic Labs, the auto-ethnography and the home visits, a few recurring patterns emerged, which were then consolidated into five key themes. We used these themes as a filter to group the participants on their motivations and actions. Each group became a ‘persona’ type: an expression of a particular pattern of attitudes and behaviours. There are shared traits between the personas, and each individual persona has a nuanced behaviour that may change over time.

The five personas were used as an introduction to kick off a design sprint with a mixed group of professional stakeholders who all work in sectors related to the plastic value chain. The aim of the workshop was to trigger ideas for solutions to the problems identified during the design research. STBY co-facilitated this workshop with Design Thinkers Academy UK. We introduced each persona by telling typical stories captured during the research. These stories inspired ideas and suggestions for collaborative solutions. Although familiar with some of the issues around the use of plastic, most of the professional stakeholders participating in the workshop had not reflected on these problems from the everyday perspective of consumers. The personas effectively illustrated the struggles and triumphs of dealing with plastic in our daily lives and inspired ideas on how the industry can provide better solutions to achieve the common aim of reducing plastic waste in our environment.

At the London Design Festival, SAP and Design Thinkers Academy London presented three concepts to combat single use plastics, each for one particular persona. Also, SAP announced a new collaboration with almost a hundred of its customers to share information about single use plastics and reduce their application as well as raise their recycling rate, called Plastics Cloud.

Joining forces towards climate action

In order to create a cleaner and greener world we have to join forces and collectively come up with new ideas and solutions. That is why it is important to STBY to engage in sustainable projects and organise co-creation sessions focussing on climate action. An example of such an event is the Spring House Climate Summit in Amsterdam we organised in relation to the Clean Energy Challenge of What Design Can Do.

Amsterdams clean energy issues

The Clean Energy Challenge calls on designers and creatives to come up with new and creative ideas to  tackle pressing energy issues in five different cities. Amsterdam is one of them. As the research partner of WDCD, we researched the local energy issues in the five different cities. We found that in Amsterdam there is little space for clean energy infrastructure. Solar panels and other visible interventions are not permitted on historic buildings. Other infrastructure necessary for the transition are too big to fit in the narrow and dense urban plan.

Need of creative brainpower

There is not enough space on land nor water to meet the electricity demands for the future of the region through renewable sources. Aesthetic concerns play a role in much of the wider metropolitan area, too. The city of Amsterdam needs some creative brainpower to invent creative solutions to make the energy transition to clean energy possible. Design has the power to approach the energy problem of Amsterdam with multipurpose concepts, products, services, and spaces.

Members club for innovators

Spring House is the shared office building where STBY is based in Amsterdam. And as Spring House is bursting of creative brainpower, it is the perfect place to organise a Climate Summit focussed on design. STBY is an active member of Spring House and makes use of the workspaces together with other Spring House members who all have the same desire: a more social and sustainable society. Spring House is also a lab and platform to collaborate and complement each others projects when relevant.

Motivate and inspire each other

Lots of Spring House members are involved in projects that strive for a cleaner and greener world. Some members work on national climate projects such as self-driven transport, others are involved in local projects, like urban agriculture in Amsterdam. At the Climate Summit we shared stories about current projects concerning energy and climate and mapped a wide range of existing initiatives by Spring House members.

Overview of all climate related projects

The network map helped us to make connections between projects and people and also showed us which projects could be complementary to each other. As a result of the summit, Spring House now have an overview of about different climate projects. It shows us how we can collectively make a difference as a Spring House community.

Real impact

Seven different impact areas where included in the network map, which gave us a direction for forming groups during the workshop part of the summit, in which we used the workshop package STBY prepared for the Clean Energy Challenge of WDCD. The provided Cluster Board and Value Map supported the Spring House community with brainstorming on new ideas to tackle the energy problem in Amsterdam. After the pitches of the results of the workshop, it was once again clear that in order to make a real impact, it is important to connect with others and join forces.

Co-creating a traffic policy

Recently STBY was asked to support conversations between policymakers of the city of Amsterdam and residents of a specific neighborhood about the renewal of their local traffic policy. We used the Street Lab method to streamline the conversation around the general principles of the policy and the specific situations it needs to cater to.

Common wish to keep the area car free

The neighborhood, Nellestein, is a special gem in the southern outskirts of Amsterdam. From the time it was built in the seventies it has been a car free area. The residents do not park in front of their houses, but in garages at the edge of the neighborhood. Only for special occasions are they allowed to enter the area with a car. Since the city of Amsterdam has recently developed a new, city-wide policy for traffic flows in local areas it became clear this neighborhood needed extra attention. This was the start of a process of co-creating a solution that fits both the needs of the residents and fits within the boundaries of the overall regulations.

Streetlabs with residents

STBY held a series of Street Labs in which a large number of residents of Nellestein could share their experiences, needs, problems and ideas about conditional traffic in their neighborhood. Many of Nellestein’s residents have lived in the neighborhood for decades, giving them a wealth of experience to tap into. Many are also now elderly, which creates new needs that they didn’t have when they moved in years ago. In addition, younger residents are moving in, with their own mobility needs and patterns. In this, Nellestein reflects broader trends impacting cities as they deal with changing demographics and attempt to reduce automobile traffic and make room for more socially and environmentally friendly alternatives. That’s why the results of the Street Labs in Nellestein may be also relevant for a great number of neighborhoods and cities.

Journey maps

The research team from STBY moderated the discussions in the Street Labs, using journey maps to document the most common scenarios of car traffic in the neighborhood. STBY documented the residents’ descriptions of their needs and preferences in detail, in order to create a realistic basis for a traffic policy that would fit the specific situation of the neighborhood. Representatives from the city were also present, giving them an opportunity to learn from the residents, and also to answer residents’ questions directly when needed.

A reflection of future trends

The analysis of the results of the Street Labs enabled the creation of a set of scenarios which could be implemented in the short to medium term. In addition, scenarios were created for the longer term making use of new technologies that make it easier to digitally grant access and ensure it is not abused. These results have now been shared with the residents as the city moves forward with a proposal for this unique neighborhood.

STBY’s Action-packed Autumn

From Service Design Days in Barcelona to a ‘Happy Pedestrian’ Conference in Amsterdam, STBY has a packed agenda for Autumn. Here’s a sweep of what we are up to.  

September 2018

‘The Happy Pedestrian’ conference in Amsterdam

STBY presented the Street Lab methodology used in a series of projects for several local councils in Amsterdam at the The Happy Pedestrian conference in the capital of The Netherlands. In these labs, a large number of residents could share their experiences, needs, problems and ideas. STBY moderated the discussions, using journey maps to document the most common scenarios of automobile use and parking in the neighborhood. At the pedestrian conference the process of these Streetlabs and the results gathered during the labs were discussed with city planners and policy makers.

Workshop at Minerva Art Academy in Groningen

Design students of Minerva Art Academy in Groningen participated in a Clean Energy Challenge workshop held by STBY, and organised by What Design Can Do. The 25 students in their 1st, 2nd, and 3th year came up with lots of creative ideas to tackle Amsterdam’s clean energy issue. A flower solar system in the narrow streets of the city, a permanent green energy exhibition, and rentel bikes that generate energy through cycling, were some of their innovative ideas.

October 2018

Service Design Days in Barcelona

Adapting to change is the theme of the Service Design Days in October in Barcelona. Following that; STBY will give a workshop about the transfer of fossil fuels to clean energy. It is a reality that we have to make a transfer from our dependence of fossil fuels to clean energy. How do we adapt to this? The Service Design Days 2018 on the 5th and 6th of October in Barcelona is a cross-boundary conference for entrepreneurs, managers and influencers who are involved in product and service innovation and the (digital) transformation of organisations. The event focuses on service design for decision makers and connects strategic designers with business strategists and vice versa.

Partos Innovation Festival in Amsterdam

Partos and The Spindle organise the annual innovation festival to highlight innovative ideas in the field of development cooperation. STBY coached the participants of the Spindle Summerlabs over the summer. In these labs, nine innovative ideas have accelerated that contribute to an inclusive, just and sustainable world. The participants of the labs will present their innovative ideas for NGO innovation on the 11th of October at Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam.

Drive 2018 at the Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven

Drive is the annual Design Research & Innovation Festival for designers and researchers working in business, industry, and government. Drive spotlights state-of-the art research and innovations within the creative industry, spreading knowledge and creating interaction and dialogue. During the Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven STBY will be presenting in a panel session on ‘Designing Innovative Attitudes’ in Natlab as part of the Drive 2018 programme. At the 24th and 25th of October presentations and interactive sessions will be held concerning the inclusive and sustainable society, addressing the following topics: circular society, healthy behaviour, resilience in society, energy & behaviour, personal experience and human empowerment.

November 2018

Innovation Conference Ministry of Justice and Security

The participants of the What Design Can Do challenge: No Minor Thing, will showcase their final proposals live, during the Innovation Congress of the Ministry of Justice & Security on 20 November 2018. To combat the largely hidden problem of sexual exploitation of minors in the Netherlands, WDCD in collaboration with the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Ministry of Justice & Security launched a new, invitation-only challenge for twelve design teams and a design school. STBY did design research on the topic and wrote the brief, the starting point of the design process. At the Innovation Conference STBY will be present to see how the designers reframed the problem.

Two STBY cases in This is Service Design Doing

The practitioners’ handbook: This is Service Design Doing, applies service design in the real world. It includes short descriptions of some of the core service design methods.

We contributed to the book by writing about two case studies, together with our clients Google and Vodafone. The first case is about the Service Experience Design methodology Vodafone developed and fine-tuned. We did deep-dive design research on several of their customer journeys. In our article you can read how customer journey mapping for specific projects can be linked up to customer life cycles with a more strategic scope. The second case is about building up service design knowledge across projects at Google. Over the past few years we have collaborated with Google on a series of design research projects. This case focusses on how we jointly identified a few principles about agile collaboration with interdisciplinary teams in large organisations.

You can order the handbook on the website of This is Service Design Doing.

Unpacking the Journey from Farm to Fork in Nairobi

STBY recently went to Nairobi to work with local design research partners on the preparations for the latest Global Design Challenge on Clean Energy. Through workshops with creatives and energy experts we explored local energy issues and developed a better understanding of the Kenyan perspectives on climate change.

With the initial desk research by STBY as a starting point, we jointly dove deeper into the local context of energy availability and usage. One of the related topics that came up quite strongly was food and eating. This is why, together with Hivos Nairobi, we decided to take the topic of ‘Eating in the City’ as the main focus for the design brief.

The workshops helped to craft a local challenge that resonates with Nairobians. The participants were local experts from the field of energy, food systems, and design. Local relevancy is essential in stimulating participants in the Clean Energy Challenge to come up with ideas that really fit the local conditions.

In follow up to the workshops we did some further research on ‘Eating in the City’ as we wanted to better understand issues around sustainable food practices and systems in Nairobi from a range of local perspectives. We also wanted to identify where design could make the most impact. This is all included in the final briefing package.

You can download the briefs we made for the Clean Energy Challenge on the website of What Design can do. You can choose one of the following challenges: Eating in Nairobi, Moving around in Sao Paul, Building in Delhi, Waste in Mexico City, and Cityscape of Amsterdam.

Global challenges, local actions

Climate change is a global problem, yet we can locally design interventions that really make a difference, especially in cities around the world. It is well known that cities use lots of energy. To be specific; cities use over two thirds of the world’s energy and contribute to more than 70% of global CO2 emissions. This is why What Design Can Do (WDCD) is focussing its second Climate Action Challenge on urban energy issues. WDCD, IKEA Foundation and other partners are calling on creative professionals, students and start-ups around the world to come up with innovative solutions. As the research partner of WDCD, STBY conducted the design research behind the Clean Energy Challenge.

Focus on five cities around the world

The design research in preparation for the challenge, focused on finding out where designers can make a difference in five different cities – Mexico City, Sao Paulo, New Delhi, Nairobi, and Amsterdam. STBY initially explored the topic to set the scope and agenda for the design challenge, and then worked with our local research partners from the Reach network to define the final briefs that are most relevant to each location. These briefs are the starting point for the participants in the challenge.

Local relevance and urgency

The local relevancy of a design challenge is very important. That is why the local partners of the Reach network played a key role in the research. Throughout the initial desk research, we identified 5 key topics that seemed to be relevant to most cities. Together with the local partners we organised co-creative workshops with the objective to get insights on local energy issues from experts in the field. This way we jointly identified the topics that were most relevant to their cities. For instance, in the case of Nairobi we decided to focus on the topic of ‘Eating in the City’, while in Mexico City the focus is on ‘City Waste’.

Wider scope on clean energy

Initially we uncovered 10 different topics relating to clean energy where designers could make a difference, but we had to bring these down to five when it was decided to focus on the five participating cities. From that point on, the research focused on establishing a briefing package for each city that had both local relevance and a clear link to one or more of the wider topics defined. The workshops carried out in the five cities by our Reach partners were instrumental to this.

You can download the briefs we made for the Clean Energy Challenge on the website of What Design can do. You can choose one of the following challenges: Eating in Nairobi, Moving around in Sao Paul, Building in Delhi, Waste in Mexico City, and Cityscape of Amsterdam.

Designing for predictive public spaces

While working on a series of projects aimed at improving the experience of pedestrians and bicyclists, I was reading Andy Clark’s book Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action and the Embodied Mind. This proved an unusually fruitful combination, even though the book is about perception, not about design. But in the context of these design problems, Clark’s explanations became interesting points of departure which often reshaped my perspective.

His phrase: ‘a web of humans and machines, each of which are now busily anticipating the other’ seems to me a perfect description of what our busiest urban public spaces are becoming. As ‘smart’ systems become more prevalent, physical touchpoints are being minimised or disappearing altogether, from whole cashier-operated checkout counters to familiar everyday features like taps, handles and buttons. Displays of information are also becoming more fluid and dynamic, as printed posters and signs are replaced by screens with moving images, some of which invite direct interaction through touch. Augmented reality seems poised to become more practical, which means it will soon play a bigger role in the digital layer we use to make things findable with our mobile devices. All of this is driven by algorithms which attempt to both predict and steer our behaviour. And some algorithms are now becoming more than smart assistants – they’re becoming agents that act independently on our behalf, without much intervention on our part.

This raises interesting questions…

As physical touchpoints vanish or minimise, they take affordances with them. How might we add affordances and make the most of the remaining ones? The bicycle parking facility entrance we recently piloted has no doors – sensors identify the type of bicycle and user and initiate interactions. We realised that the sense of a boundary had largely vanished with the doors, so we paid special attention to the sculptural and visual qualities of the remaining components, so that approaching bicyclists would clearly perceive that they were approaching a boundary where some kind of interaction might take place.

What is the right way to make use of the virtual and physical realms for wayfinding? Serial mono-tasking – switching between the real and virtual worlds – is typical of mobile device use. This means less attention for the real world and its affordances, as people’s attention bounces back and forth between their mobile devices and surroundings. Clark mentions experiments that reveal that while doing a relatively simple task, people make more continual and intensive use of the world as an external buffer, than we might imagine. Will augmented reality stitch these two realms back together?

How smart should a touchpoint be? When should it work more like a tool, an assistant, or an agent?

I’ve often thought of this while observing the transformation of route information signage in public transportation.  I rather miss the old ‘dumb’ printed overviews of whole bus routes. These have been replaced by screens that show only small parts of the route as the bus progresses, mixed with extra information and advertising. The result is that if I don’t know the route, I can’t pinpoint my present location and determine the number of stops to come so I know when to prepare to get off, and must rely on apps, announcements and asking fellow passengers to orient myself. I now also have to wait for ads to finish to see whether a stop is coming up, so I’m actually forced to spend more time watching the screen. What are the best practices for these kind of screen-based systems?

A place where a ‘smarter’ approach might work well is the subway map. Real-time, data-driven interactive subway maps can be smart assistants, using location info and predictive text to make finding a path easier. But they can also act as agents. For example, they might use real-time traffic data to change the visualisation of routes and nudge people to use less crowded alternatives, distributing traffic more evenly and avoiding blockages. Or the maps can offer these as defaults during peak times. (One of the advantages of Mr. Beck’s original schematic London subway map is that it distorted real-world topography, making the far-flung stations look closer by.) The maps could also offer more detailed information for first-time travellers than to experienced ones.

But public spaces must work for everyone, not only those with the most sophisticated technologies. How might we keep options open for old-fashioned, ‘dumb’ touchpoints where they provide more clarity to users?

More thoughts…

Clark’s book is a tough read for the non-neuroscientist. The basic idea of predictive process – that perception is prediction minus a kind of ongoing correction based on back-flowing error signals, weighted for accuracy –  and its ramifications, can be difficult to grasp.

The main thing I took away from reading it is that the see-think-act paradigm we’re used to is a good model for interaction, but shouldn’t be mistaken for a model of perception itself. Understanding the central role of prediction in perception and the way the brain, body and world form temporary ‘coalitions’ to solve problems, might help us to design the external buffers and supports our embodied, moving brains need to create optimal behaviours on the fly. This can help us  create, in Clark’s words, ‘a world worth acting in’.

More about the ideas…

Clark presents a new theory of perception different from the basic sense-think-act model most of us are used to. The core idea is ‘predictive process’: that instead of passively sensing and interpreting signals, the brain pro-actively sorts out the incoming sensory barrage in advance and checks the accuracy of its prediction on the fly. So what we perceive is what our brains predict, minus a kind of constant correction based on incoming signals that don’t seem to match the prediction. If you’d like to know more, his interview with Ginger Campbell on The Brain Science Podcast is a fun and accessible introduction. For those of us working with robotics, the book also contains interesting examples of the theory’s application in that field.


Stones and software: a design dilemma of smart wearables

The development of wearables is continuing apace. Established luxury and tech brands, newcomers, startups, have all begun creating serious offerings. Consumers can already choose from a range of products, from wristbands to watches to rings and other kinds of devices.


Consumers’ expectations seem to fall into two categories: smart and pretty. 

‘Smarter’ means that just raw data is not enough any more. We seem to expect recommendations or a program tailored to the individual. Even simple data like numbers of steps needs to be interpreted and can mean very different things, depending on what a person’s goals are. So customisation as well as contextual data analysis are important areas of development.

‘Prettier’ wearables prioritise fashion,  and are being created by fashion brands mainly in the form of hybrid rings, watches and jewellery that include selected smart functionalities.  

The dilemma

Here comes the dilemma: sophisticated software and hardware, by definition, is dynamic, fluid and changing while luxury products like jewellery keep their value precisely because they don’t change and are meant for a lifetime (or more) of use.

It will be interesting to see whether and how designers go about combining these two aspects into successful hybrid forms. And  how these, in turn, might change people’s behaviour and perceptions of smart wearables.


Learning from early masters of public life studies

I was recently involved in service design research to support an initiative that involved potential changes to the client’s staff’s way of working, but also to the design of its program of activities and to part of its interior. 

As we explored the problem, I found myself re-reading the work of seminal thinkers including Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehl, William Whyte, Christopher Alexander, and Kevin Lynch. Their ideas about the relationship between spatial design and human interactivity proved particularly useful, though they date from decades before we and our environment become digitally enhanced and networked in a ‘world-wide-web’.

Their work provided our team with the key to understanding the complex ways in which spatial design, organisational culture and activity impact each other, enabling us to make next steps.

Gehl’s (Life Between Buildings) insights about the ways in which ‘low-intensity contact’ underpins the growth of deeper, ‘high-intensity’ relationships – and his observations of the ways the built environment can help or hinder its flourishing – helped us create design principles for the new space and activities.  Alexander et. al’s  approach (A Pattern Language) – gave us a form to use in creating a conceptual model of the built space based on the way users experience it and interact in it, as opposed to relying solely on functional requirements or style conventions. Lynch’s (The Image of the City) abstraction of edges, paths, nodes and other elements that make up users’ mental model of a space, helped us interpret user input to form a realistic idea of the constraints and opportunities offered by the building’s interior design.

What we can learn

One striking feature of these pioneers’ approach is their lean integration of quantitative and qualitative research. This enabled them to create strong evidence for findings which otherwise might have been dismissed as nostalgic fantasies or subjective impressions not rigorous enough to base design interventions on. They deployed a rich set of instruments: measuring the number and duration of encounters, the speed of walkers and traffic, and using mapping, path-tracing, interviews, time-elapse film and photography. They used these to create solidly evidenced models that revealed the relationships between behaviours and environments. Their visualisation of their findings was also innovative and thought-provoking.

How many? Who? Where? What? How long? They showed us how these seemingly simple questions, when answered through rigorous data collection and combined with qualitative insights, can reveal new kinds of order that are hiding in plain sight.

Some reading tips

How to Study Public Life by Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre contains many cases with explanations of the methodologies and results, from the 1960s up to very recent ones. For a great example of quant-qual integration and visual representation of results, see Appleyard and Lintell’s visual explanation of the relationship between the traffic speed and social life of three San Francisco streets on page 114.

If you don’t have time to read Jane Jacobs’ work at length, read the section about her in James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, entitled ‘The Case Against High-modernist Urbanism: Jane Jacobs’.